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Chinese Checkers

Indian President Narayanan with Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji in Beijing, May 2000.

Indo-Chinese relations have markedly improved in the last two years, and is showing signs of great promise. However China plays a deep game helping Pakistan, North Korea and Burma with generous military aid. Enemy No.1, as Defence Minister George Fernandes described before Pokhran II, still occupies 38,000 sq-km of Indian territory in the north. The rising economic superpower of this century, is doing its outmost to contain India and Japan. Having failed to corral India after Pokhran, China has decided to readjust its strategy. While helping Pakistan against India remains a key element in its strategy, the Chinese are also using their economic muscle to bully India into submission. Beijings brinkmanship and increasing military prowess are reasons enough for India to be alert.

Over the years, India has bent backwards to court China, only to be taken in by its own rhetoric. This was true of Nehru's Hindi-Chini bhai bhai policy that led to the 1962 invasion, Vajpayee's pioneering but botched 1979 trip during which the Chinese attacked Vietnam, and Rajiv Gandhi's 1988-initiated rapprochement process that gave Beijing cover for a decade of accelerated containment of India.

Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping

In April 1998, Fernandes stated that China was "a bigger potential threat" than Pakistan, and after the May 1998 nuclear tests, Prime Minister Vajpayee wrote to US President Bill Clinton that China was the rationale behind India's experiment. While in June 1999, External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh gave Beijing a clean chit by declaring from Chinese soil that it was "not a security threat to India". All these conflicting signals show that India still doesn't have a clear China policy.

Jaswant Singh with Chinese premier Zhu Rongji

In June 1999, during the Kargil conflict with Pakistan, the Chinese told Pakistan to respect the border in Kashmir. Also, Mr Jaswant Singh became the first Indian Foreign Minister to visit China in eight years. After a meeting with Chinese Foreign Minister Tang Jiaxuan, it was agreed to resume political interaction stalled after the Pokhran nuclear tests, by deciding to establish a security dialogue, enhancing the level of political visits, giving impetus to the decisions of the Joint Working Group(JWG) and promoting economic and trade relations.

Chinese Foreign minister Tang Jiaxuan with Jaswant Singh

In December 1999, the 17th Karmapa(living Buddha), Ugyen Trinley Dorje fled to India in the most significant defection from Chinese-ruled Tibet since the Dalai Lama fled 40 years ago. The Karmapa's flight was seen as deeply embarrassing to Chinese leaders, who used him as a symbol of Chinese rule over Tibet. The Karmapa's presence in India is a diplomatic problem for the Indian government, which has been working to improve relations with China.

Ugyen Trinley Dorje

In January 2000, Chinese President Jiang Zemin made some highly derogatory references to India in a meeting with US President Bill Clinton. Even by Chinese standards, the scorn Jiang poured on India and the warnings he delivered were extraordinary. Zemin reportedly warned that India would be dealt with strongly if it did not stop providing shelter to Tibetan refugees and continued to oppose China’s efforts to integrate Arunachal and Sikkim with the rest of that country. This greatly surprised Indians because of the recent thaw in relations. Jiang's hitherto unrevealed comments make clear that despite New Delhi's efforts to mollify China, Beijing treats India as a country to be threatened, belittled and kept in check.

Chinese President Jiang Zemin

Using or threatening force has been a factor in Chinese policy since the inception of the People's Republic. The Americans learnt this in Korea in 1950s, the Indians in 1962 and 1967, the Vietnamese in 1979 the Taiwanese as recently as 1996 when China lobbed nuclear capable missiles into the sea off Taiwan and the Japanese in 1998 when North Korea(with Chinese approval) test-fired a medium-range missile over the Japanese island of Honshu.

The story of distrust between India and China dates back to the Chinese occupation of Tibet in the early Fifities, and the building of the Tibet-Xinjiang highway through Aksai Chin. India may have been the first nation outside the Soviet bloc to recognise the People’s Republic of China, but the Chinese poohpoohed India’s insistence on the British-drawn Tibetan border. Delhi subsequently recognised China’s claim to Tibet, but this did not deter China from claiming territory in the Indian region.

Also, in the Fifties, the Dalai Lama fled to India, and Delhi’s collaboration with the US Central Intelligence Agency to arm Tibetan Khampa rebels aggravated the tension. And even before India’s policy of setting up forward posts in Aksai Chin could take place, China occupied most of the territory there. This led to the 1962 war and China wrested almost 90,000 sq km in Arunachal Pradesh. Beijing still claims that state as its own.

Recently, an expert group of officials meeting in Beijing exchanged maps of the Sino-Indian border along the Himachal and Uttaranchal states. Laudable though the progress is, it would be prudent to recognise that it was related only to the boundary question between the two countries. It did not address the larger issue of security arising out of the strategic asymmetry between India and China which was redressed only after the Indian decision to go nuclear in 1998.

Seven years ago in 1993, in a major breakthrough, the two countries signed an agreement that not only committed them to resolve their 4,056 km boundary through `peaceful and friendly' consultations, but to `reduce their military forces along the line of actual control'. To implement the working of the agreement, the India-China Joint Working Group on the boundary issue created an expert group of diplomats and military officials to oversee the working of the agreement.

In 1996, the two sides signed a follow-up agreement to put in place an ambitious set of confidence-building measures to prevent any tension on the Line of Actual Control(LAC). The 1993 and 1996 agreements serve at best a limited purpose for China and India. The detailed clauses on the latter agreement prevent the kind of surprise that rattled the Chinese in the wake of exercise Chequerboard in 1987.

But there has been a problem in operationalising these agreements. Neither side accepts completely the other's version of where the Line of Actual Control actually runs. Indeed, the 1993 agreement was designed to resolve this problem. Till now, there had been no movement on its critical mandate that "when necessary, the two sides shall jointly check and determine the segments of the line of actual control where they have a different views as to its alignment." The exchange of maps of the relatively less controversial central sector is the first step in determining a line of control that will be accepted as such by both sides.

The 1993 and 1996 agreements were signed at a time when India adopted an ostrich-like approach and delinked the border issue from the wider question of the manner in which Chinese aid to Pakistan was undermining Indian security in a much more fundamental fashion. Coincidentally, since 1993, the year of the signing of the first agreement, the extraordinary and irresponsible Chinese support to Pakistan's nuclear and missile programmes has been revealed, principally through leaks to the Washington Times. Since Pakistan makes no bones about the fact that its nuclear and missile capacity is aimed at India, China has, in fact, been a critical actor in perhaps fundamentally undermining Indian security. Besides providing Islamabad scores of missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads and reaching principal Indian cities, the Chinese have helped fabricate the shield behind which Pakistan prosecutes its proxy war against India.

Chinese officials publicly deny that they have provided any assistance to Pakistan. Even the US, which has access to detailed information on Chinese nuclear and missile proliferation, has been afraid to act. The most ludicrous example is that of the Chinese M-11 missile transfer to Pakistan. This should have triggered off tough Missile Technology Control Regime(MTCR) sanctions against China, but the US has, for the past seven years, taken the view that it is yet to make a final determination as to whether the missile in question is indeed the M-11. Privately some candid Chinese officials say that what they are doing for Pakistan is no different from what the Russians are doing for India.

This argument is nothing but sophistry since neither the Russians, nor the Soviets before them, breached the NPT as China has in the case of Pakistan. In the early 1980s, before the Russians had ever heard of the MTCR, India could have acquired any number of highly capable surface-to-surface missiles from the Soviet Union, but it did not. Instead, it has its own sputtering programme. On the other hand, the Chinese have used every trick in the book to bypass their own commitments to the NPT and the MTCR to provide Pakistan material for making nuclear weapons. The Chinese intention is to contain India by keeping us forever occupied with Pakistan. Similarly they contain Japan by aiding North Korea's military machine.

The 1962 Indo-China war helped consolidate the relationship between Pakistan and China, culminating in Pakistan gifting the Baltistan territory to China in March 1963. This gave China a strategic leverage with India. Since then they have forged the most stable of strategic and diplomatic alliances, based on the old Chinese proverb 'The enemy of my enemy is my friend'. Chinese affection for Pakistan also arises from the fear of Muslim fundamentalism in its own Xinjiang province. One theory is that the Chinese need a Muslim ally to prevent Islamic terrorism from spilling into its own territory by keeping fundamentalists engaged elsewhere. But a counter-theory is that China cannot afford to indulge fundamentalism anywhere lest it be at the receiving end itself.

The chances of a Sino-Indian cross-border war may have been reduced by the 1993 and 1996 agreements, but they have not been eliminated. The disputed border offers a myriad opportunities for conflict. Between 1962 when China humiliated India in a short border war and today, there has been a sea change in India's military capabilities in dealing with a cross-border attack. Technical means enable India to track any build-up of Chinese forces on the Tibetan plateau months in advance. As far as India is concerned, a tranquil border enables it to maintain one-third of its Army in combating counter-insurgency.

On September 19, 1965, when the tide of the war began turning against Pakistan, the Chinese issued an ultimatum demanding an end to some entirely fictional Indian military activities on the Sikkim-China border and the return of a number yaks and sheep seized by Indian forces there. During the Kargil war, Chinese forces visibly enhanced their presence on their side of the LAC in Ladakh and Arunachal Pradesh. In the recent past, Chinese road construction activity in the Ladakh region has been stepped up for reasons that are difficult to discern.

Since 1993, China has been helping Myanmar(Burma) build a radar system, an airstrip and a naval base very close to the Andamans, India's most vulnerable territory. To an unsuspecting eye Myanmar's Coco Islands, Great and Little, with their dense coconut fields may seem an idyll. But beneath the pinnate foliage on the larger island are the powerful 'electronic eyes' that Myanmar's 75 AF Radar Squadron has installed with Chinese 'assistance'. These Chinese radars can pry up to 250 km, into India. They keep a watch on all aircraft taking off from Calcutta or any eastern airport. The presence of the Chinese military installations on the Coco Islands leaves the Andamans vulnerable.

Myanmar has also set up an airstrip and a signal intelligence node on the Great Coco Island. Chinese defence personnel have been sighted there almost regularly in the last seven years. Now the perception is threat: how safe are India's defence installations along the eastern coast, particularly the missile testing centre in Chandipur, Orissa? How safe will they remain when one of China's two aircraft carriers, now under construction in Russia, is deployed in the bay? How safe are Andaman and Nicobar Islands, which is far from the mainland? Military analysts say that India should have taken note of the vulnerability of the Bay of Bengal in 1971 when America deployed its Seventh Fleet and talked tough during the Bangladesh war.

In May 2000, Indian President K.R. Narayanan visited China on the 50th anniversary of the establishment of Sino-India diplomatic relations. The President Narayanan reaffirmed India's commitment to Panchsheel- the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence, that has guided Sino- India relations for the last 50 years.

In January 2001, Chinese leader Li Peng visited india. Mr Peng is the chairman of China's National People's Congress and second only to president Jiang Zemin in the official Chinese hierarchy. He is the person most familiar with India, having been prime minister when the first breakthrough in Sino-India ties took place during Rajiv Gandhi's visit in 1988. Again in 1993, when the agreement on maintaining peace and tranquillity along the Line of Actual Control(LAC) was signed, Li Peng was China's PM.

Li Peng and wife at the Taj Mahal

In their meeting Li Peng and Jaswant Singh agreed that the exchange of maps of the middle sector of the LAC was a good beginning in solving the sensitive boundary dispute. However Li Peng's visit was high on atmospherics and low on substance. Bluntly acknowledging that India and China lacked mutual understanding, Chinese leader Li Peng said their differences should not act as an impediment to the growth of bilateral relations.

The challenge to Indian policy-makers, who got into the game late, is to effectively mesh Indian security planning with diplomacy. India also needs a clearheaded, long-term China policy. Otherwise the Chinese, who are the masters of Real-Politik, will always come out on top.

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